Preventing Disease in Your Youngstock

Posted on November 3, 2012 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
From Sheila McGuirk, UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine

Cold weather may be inconvenient in terms of calf jackets and frozen water, but it is great for limiting the microscopic bugs that make young calves sick.
As the spring weather warms up, it’s important for producers to take a look at their calf care protocols and limit calves’ exposure to harmful pathogens. Dr. Sheila McGuirk, DVM and PhD, is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. She provides several important tips for preventing disease in youngstock.
High Risk Calves
McGuirk recommends you first keep your eyes open for high risk calves – those animals which are already at a disadvantage for fighting off disease – as soon as they are born. Here are the normal behavioral parameters for newborn calves:
  • Head righting within minutes
  • Sternal recumbency (sitting on the brisket with legs tucked under the body) within five minutes
  • Standing attempts made within 15 minutes
  • Standing at one hour
  • Body temperature declines from an elevated level at birth to 101 or 102 degrees F within an hour
  • Shivering
  • Suckling within two hours
  • Respiratory rate of 50 to 75 breaths per minute
  • Regular heart rhythm of 100 to 150 beats per minute
If you suspect a calf is high risk, mark the calf (nylon zip ties, shower curtain rings, Velcro bands, eartags, clamps, clothes pins and individual note cards make great markers) and continue to monitor it closely.
McGuirk says, “At the very least, record the rectal temperature daily and perform a complete exam or have the veterinarian examine a high risk calf which has sustained increase in the rectal temperature of more than 1.5 degrees F.”
Diarrhea Problems
According to McGuirk, lowering exposure to pathogens and maximizing the calf’s resistance are the two keys to the prevention of diarrhea problems.
“Reducing exposure begins by immediate removal of calves from the calving environment.  Delayed removal until calves start making attempts to stand almost certainly provides multiple opportunities to ingest a fecal inoculum from the calving pen bedding.” Once that calf begins to stand, it can easily be exposed to pathogens on its dam, other calving pen occupants or the surrounding bedding.
The next step is to maximize the calf’s immunity with colostrum.  When feeding colostrum, McGuirk makes these recommendations:
  • Use udder preparation procedures identical to what you would use in the saleable milk parlor
  • Colostrum that isn’t fed should be chilled to 38 degrees F or pasteurized immediately
  • Using bottles and/or esophageal feeders that are sanitized between calves limits pre-feeding bacterial contamination
Remember the other sites for potential exposure to diarrheal pathogens. These include transport carts or vehicles, employee clothing, feeding and handling equipment, bedding and feed. This highlights the importance of specific sanitation protocols. If a calf does develop diarrheal issues, hydration is the key to getting that animal healthy. “Hydration is maintained by continued milk feeding and water along with oral electrolyte solution to correct dehydration.”
McGuirk said antibiotic treatment is used to address concerns of salmonellosis or for calves with signs of systemic illness, including:
  • Temperatures above 103 degrees F or below 100 degrees F
  • Reduced intake or feed refusal
  • Arched back and hair standing straight up
  • More than a streak of blood in the feces
Respiratory Problems
“Respiratory disease in young dairy calves is relatively common and difficult to detect. Diminished appetite for milk is uncommon in 3-week-old dairy calves, the age most commonly affected with the first episode of respiratory disease…Time invested in early detection and implementation of an effective respiratory disease treatment protocol will eliminate chronic pneumonia, ear infections, recurring bloat and the other negative effects on heifer growth, reproductive performance, milk production in the first lactation and life span.”
A quick visual check can alert you to respiratory disease in your calves. Look for nasal discharge, ocular discharge, ear position and spontaneous coughing. If you see two or more abnormal signs, you likely have a calf with treatable respiratory disease.
How can you limit the potential for respiratory problems? First consider housing. “Solid partitions between calves that prevent calf-to-calf contact, deep bedding and low aerosolized bacterial counts have the most significant impact on lowering the risk of respiratory disease,” McGuirk says. However, she also cautions that additional barriers around a pen limit pen access to fresh air. This increases the aerosolized bacteria and, thus, respiratory disease.
For more information on raising healthy calves, visit the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine resources at
Source: Dr. Sheila McGuirk, 2009 Proceedings, Minnesota Dairy Health Conference, Calf Management Workshop.

Category: Animal health
Starting Strong - Calf Care